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Why I oppose Zionism

by Matthew Nemiroff Lyons

The following is excerpted from my essay “Parasites and Pioneers: Antisemitism in White Supremacist America,” which was written between 1989 and 1993 and published in 2003 in the anthology Sing, Whisper, Shout, Pray!: Feminist Visions for a Just World (edited by M. Jacqui Alexander, et al. and published by Edgework Books). Although a few portions of the excerpt are slightly dated, the main argument and analysis remain all too timely. I’ve made a few corrections here, mostly stylistic.

Many Jews across the political spectrum believe that Jews need a homeland to ensure survival, and that to call for the dissolution of the Jewish state of Israel is antisemitic. Many Jews who hold this position are critical of Israeli government policies, and many also support the creation of an independent Palestinian state. But even Jews who do not call themselves Zionists often believe firmly in the existence of the Jewish state, the bottom line of Zionist ideology today.

I am an anti-Zionist Jew: I believe that Israel should not exist as a Jewish state. Zionism is wrong because it is based on ethnic exclusivism and internalized antisemitism. Creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel (as opposed to partial “autonomy” in a couple of tiny enclaves) could relieve some of the worst symptoms of Israeli rule, but it would not address these basic problems.

Left anti-Zionism cannot be equated with the neonazis, who hate Israel because they hate Jews. Still, some left anti-Zionists have acted and spoken in antisemitic ways or shown insensitivity to Jewish concerns. For example, some anti-Zionists have equated all Jews with Zionism or all Israelis with the Israeli government. Some have dismissed any talk about Jewish culture or antisemitism as racist or distracting. Some have trivialized the Nazi genocide, or equated Israeli rule with Nazism. Some have exaggerated the power of a supposed Jewish lobby or international Zionist conspiracy. Some have incorrectly labeled Zionism a form of White supremacy, ignoring the fact that roughly half the Israeli Jewish people are “Oriental” Jews (people of color).[1] Some have stated or implied that Israeli Jews should be driven out or killed. Some have dismissed any sympathy with Israeli Jewish victims of Palestinian violence as inherently reactionary. These actions can play into antisemitism and discredit legitimate criticisms of Zionism.[2]

Jewish feminists and leftists have encountered many cases of antisemitic behavior passing as anti-Zionism: a political rally in New York City where demonstrators chanted “Down with the Jews!”; newspapers and journals that would only print Jewish-identified material by “balancing” it with pro-Palestinian articles. At the 1980 United Nations Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, where the U.N. resolution declaring Zionism a form of racism set the terms of debate, women reported numerous calls for Jews to be killed, and a general climate of anti-Jewish intimidation.[3]

I do not want Israeli Jews to be expelled or killed, but rather to share the land under terms of justice and equality with Palestinians. Israeli Jews are not simply a collection of individuals, nor a religious group. The Zionist project brings together Jews from many different nations and ethnic communities and welds them into a new Israeli nation, with its own language, economy, and culture. Ironically, Zionist ideology, which declares that all Jews everywhere form one abstract nation, does not and cannot recognize either this concrete Hebrew-speaking national entity or the diverse and conflicting national traditions within it.[4]

Israeli fundamental law, equivalent to a constitution, defines Israel as “the sovereign state of the Jewish people” (an extraterritorial group), rather than a state of its own citizens (Arabs as well as Jews).[5] It declares that “gathering in the exiles is the central task of the State of Israel and the Zionist movement.” Thus Israel exists primarily to serve Jews, to the exclusion of other citizens. By law, “all” Jews (with some exceptions) may claim Israeli citizenship “by return,” while Palestinian Arabs may not, although hundreds of thousands of them have been forced to live in exile for decades. By law, 92 percent of Israeli land may not be sold or leased to non-Jews. By law, most Palestinian Arabs have no property rights and are defined as “absentees,” even if they live in Israel. By law, national development is in the hands of agencies that serve only Jews. This is what the Jewish state means. Without this, Israel would not be a Jewish state. This is legal racism.[6]

Many liberal Jews avoid this issue. New Jewish Agenda, which went further than most U.S. Jewish groups in the 1980s in criticizing oppression of the Palestinians, called on Israel to adopt a constitution guaranteeing all residents equal rights, but also endorsed Israel’s self-definition as the state of the Jewish people. They did not explain how Israel could grant special status and priority to one group and also guarantee equal rights for all.[7]

Like the United States, Israeli society is based on settlerism: the colonization of Palestinian land and labor. During the 1948 war, Israeli armed forces deliberately caused 750,000 Palestinians to flee, by conducting a series of civilian massacres. During and after the war, Israel demolished four hundred of the five hundred Palestinian villages within its borders, and seized large tracts of land from Palestinians. From the early 1900s until mid-century, the pseudosocialist Labor Zionist movement pursued the “conquest of labor”: forcibly excluding Palestinians from working in Jewish-run projects and businesses. In many cases the businesses replaced Palestinian workers with “Oriental” Jews brought in specifically for that purpose. Later the policy shifted and Israeli Jews began to exploit Palestinian workers as a cheap work force for menial jobs, increasingly relying on workers from the Occupied Territories. Many of the pseudosocialist kibbutzim (Jewish communal farms) have long barred Palestinians and “Oriental” Jews from becoming members, while using their low-paid labor.[8]

Israeli settlerism is a particularly virulent form of the western intervention political, military and economic that bolsters oppressive societies throughout the Middle East. Palestinians fleeing Israeli rule have borne the full weight of this interlocking system. Seeking refuge and work in other Arab countries, they have often been exploited as a stateless labor force and subjected to harsh government persecution.

The 1993 accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which established limited Palestinian “autonomy” in Jericho and the Gaza Strip, did virtually nothing to transform genuine power relations except to give the PLO shared responsibility for policing the Palestinian people. Creation of a genuine Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories would go somewhat further, offering Palestinians possible relief from the harsh burden of exile, military rule, and cultural and political repression. Even this, however, would not change the colonial relationship between Israeli settler society and Palestinian labor. It would not restore to Palestinians the land stolen from them within Israel’s borders. It would not change the racism in Israeli fundamental law. Palestinian national liberation requires an end to Israel’s discriminatory Jewish-state laws and policies, and to the class and cultural hierarchies that oppress Palestinians throughout the Middle East.

Political Zionism, the movement to build the Jewish state of Israel, has been called “the liberation movement of the Jewish people.” Yet this movement has been a disaster not only for Palestinians, but also for Jews. Political Zionism was founded on the beliefs that Jews are a foreign presence in all countries outside of Palestine and that antisemitism is natural and inevitable whenever Jews live among other people thus we should accept it rather than fight it. The Zionist movement repeatedly attacked Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and other Jewish cultures. Theodor Herzl, founder of political Zionism, denounced Yiddish-speaking Jews in antisemitic terms as cowardly, profit-hungry, treacherous, scheming, dirty, repellent. (Note that Yiddish was associated with women, whereas Hebrew, which the Zionists promoted, had for centuries been the nearly exclusive province of men.) In Israel, the Ashkenazi-dominated power structure has worked to stifle and marginalize African and Asian Jews’ cultures and histories, while repackaging their music, crafts, and foods as exotic tourist items.[9]

The Nazi genocide is often cited as proof that Jews must have a homeland “to ensure our survival as a people.” This argument carries great emotional power because it speaks to the grief and fear that millions of Jews feel in the wake of Nazi terror. But it overlooks one fact: a homeland does not ensure survival. The Polish state did not save the three million non-Jewish Poles murdered by the Nazis. The USSR, with one of the most powerful armies in the world, did not save the twenty million Soviet citizens killed during World War II. The Jews in Palestine were not saved by Zionism, but because they happened to be in a place that the Nazis did not conquer.[10]

The leadership of the Zionist movement during the Nazi period ranked the creation of a Jewish homeland a higher priority than protecting Jewish lives. Shortly after the Nazis’ 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, which killed one hundred Jews, the British government offered to provide immediate refuge to thousands of Jewish children from Germany. David Ben-Gurion, later Israel’s first prime minister, opposed the plan:

“If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half by transporting them to Eretz Yisrael, then I would opt for the second alternative. For we must weigh not only the life of these children, but also the history of the People of Israel.”[11]

The Israeli state has followed a similar policy of subordinating the needs of Jews to its own ends. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the Israeli government blocked independent western Jewish groups trying to aid Soviet Jews. During the 1980s, Israel pressed other governments especially the United States to limit Soviet immigration, in order to force Soviet Jewish emigres to settle in Israel. The United States instituted such restrictions in 1989, resulting in a mass influx to Israel. Israel developed close ties with antisemitic governments in Ethiopia, South Africa, and most notoriously Argentina, where the fascistic military junta conducted systematic terrorism against Jews.[12]

Far from freeing Jews from the dangers of antisemitism, Zionism has expanded Jews’ traditional role into the international sphere. Many Arab governments use Israel as a scapegoat to draw popular resentment away from their own role in imperialism, capitalism, and repression. Far from giving Jews a “normal” nation-state, Zionism has created a state that is heavily militarized, perpetually at war, and massively dependent on foreign subsidies.

Israel’s semitheocracy gives Orthodox rabbis legal authority over all issues of personal status for Jews “the famous private sphere in which civilly subordinate women are traditionally imprisoned” including marriage, divorce, abortion, rape, and domestic violence. Jewish women may not testify in religious courts; husbands alone may grant divorce, and their decisions are final. In the most common form of pornography in Israel, published in mainstream magazines, “Jewish women are sexualized as Holocaust victims for Jewish men to masturbate over…. The themes are fire, gas, trains, emaciation, death.”[13] Like JAP-baiting in the United States, this enables Jewish men to channel their own self-hatred into hatred of women.

Until the 1940s only a small minority of North American Jews endorsed political Zionism. A broad spectrum of Jewish political tendencies has rejected the concept of a Jewish state in Palestine, ranging from the Jewish Labor Bund to pre-1930s Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Jews of Neturei Karta.[14]

It is important for us to acknowledge and confront anti-Jewish tendencies when they appear under the guise of anti-Zionism. It is also important for us to counter misinformation about supposed Israeli democracy and the Zionist “liberation” movement, and to act in solidarity with Palestinians working for a just peace free of colonial and ethnic oppression.


[1] “Oriental” Jews is a term encompassing most non-Ashkenazi Jews, including Jews of Arab, Ethiopian, Indian, Iranian, Kurdish, and Sephardi descent. (Ashkenazi Jews are of central and eastern European descent.) I place the word “Oriental” in quotes because of the racist connotations often attached to it. The phrase Sephardi Jews is sometimes used as a generic term for non-Ashkenazi Jews, but I find this misleading. Sephardis are Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent, whose culture blended European and Arab influences under Islamic rule in Spain, and many of whom found refuge in Turkey and North Africa after the Christians reconquered the Iberian peninsula and threw them out. To subsume all non-Ashkenazis under the label “Sephardi” obscures the existence of many other non-Ashkenazi Jewish cultures.

[2] See Alisa Solomon, “Jewish Feminists Speak Out on Israel,” Bridges 1, no. 1 (Spring 1990/5750): 41-56; Steven Lubet and Jeffry (Shaye) Mallow, “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic: Perspective on the American Left,” in Chutzpah: A Jewish Liberation Anthology, ed. Steven Lubet, et al. (San Francisco: New Glide Publications, 1977), 52-56; Elly Bulkin, “Hard Ground: Jewish Identity, Racism, and Anti-Semitism,” in Elly Bulkin, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Barbara Smith, Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism (Brooklyn: Long Haul Press, 1984), 154-186; and the discussion of Zionism, antisemitism, and racism in the July, August-September, and October, 1982 issues of off our backs.

[3] On the 1980 U.N. Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, see Letty Cottin Pogrebin, “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement,” Ms., June 1982, 48-49, 62, 65; and Bulkin’s critical comments about Pogrebin’s article in “Hard Ground,” 169-174.

[4] On the Israeli-Jewish nationality, see Arie Bober, ed., The Other Israel: The Radical Case Against Zionism (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1972), 176-181, 237-242; Alain Gresh, The PLO: The Struggle Within: Towards an Independent Palestinian State, trans. A.M. Berrett (London: Zed Books, 1985), 40-42; and Moshe Machover and Said Hammammi, “To Live Together,” in Forbidden Agendas: Intolerance and Defiance in the Middle East, ed. Jon Rothschild (London: Al Saqi Books, 1984), 383-387.

[5] On the racism inherent in the Zionist conception of a Jewish state, see Roselle Tekiner, Jewish Nationality Status as the Basis for Institutionalized Racism in Israel (London: EAFORD [International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination], 1985); Nira Yuval-Davis, “The Jewish Collectivity and National Reproduction in Israel,” in Women in the Middle East (London: Zed Books, 1987), 60-93; Andrea Dworkin, “Israel: Whose Country Is It Anyway?,” Ms., September-October 1990; Uri Davis, “Israel’s Zionist Society: Consequences for Internal Opposition and the Necessity for External Intervention,” in Judaism or Zionism?: What Difference for the Middle East? , ed. EAFORD and AJAZ [American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism] (London: Zed Books, 1986), 176-201; Elmer Berger, “The Unauthenticity of ‘Jewish People’ Zionism,” in Judaism or Zionism? , ed. EAFORD and AJAZ, 133-147, especially pp. 140-142; and Walter Lehn, “The Jewish National Fund,” in Settler Regimes in Africa and the Arab World, ed. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Baha Abu-Laban (Wilmette, IL: Medina University Press International, 1974), 43-53.
Certain groups of Jews have been denied the right to automatic Israeli citizenship “by return.” For example, gay and lesbian Jews have been excluded at least until recently, and Ethiopian Jews were excluded until 1975.

[6] Israel’s fundamental laws articulate its primary racial division — between Jews and non-Jews. White supremacy operates as a second-order division within this framework, creating a three-tiered structure: on top, Ashkenazi Jews (of central and eastern European descent); in the middle, “Oriental” Jews (Arab, Sephardi, African, and Asian); on the bottom, Palestinian Arabs. The claim that Israel is the state of the entire Jewish people helps to rationalize the dominance of Ashkenazis within Israeli society: Ashkenazis long formed a minority of Israeli Jews, but a large majority of Jews worldwide. This “imbalance” also presumably fed the Israeli government’s eagerness to admit large numbers of Soviet (Ashkenazi) Jews.

[7] See the New Jewish Agenda National Platform (adopted November 28, 1982), 6.

[8] See Rosemary Sayigh, Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries (London: Zed Books 1979), 64-92; Uri Davis, “Israel’s Zionist Society,” 180, 196n-197n; James J. Zogby, “The Palestinian Revolt of the 1930s,” in Settler Regimes in Africa and the Arab World, ed. Abu-Lughod, 103-105; Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Random House, 1979), 21; Moshe Machover and Mario Offenberg, “Zionism and Its Scarecrows,” Khamsin 6 (1978): 46-59; Emmanuel Farjoun, “Palestinian Workers in Israel: A Reserve Army of Labor,” in Forbidden Agendas, ed. Rothschild , 77-122; Moshe Semyonev and Noah Lewin-Epstein, Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water: Noncitizen Arabs in the Israeli Labor Market (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1987) .
Labor Zionism’s policy of racial exclusivism fits a pattern often followed by other settler working-class movements. In the United States, White socialists and other labor activists played a leading role in the bloody campaigns from the 1870s to early 1900s to force Chinese and Japanese workers out of the California labor market. In South Africa in 1922, the Communist Party supported a nationwide general strike by White workers under the slogan, “Workers of the World Fight and Unite for a White South Africa!” See J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat (Chicago: Morningstar Press, 1983), 35-36, 60.

[9] See “Zionism and Anti-Semitism” in The Other Israel, ed. Bober, 167-175; Sander Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 238-240; Machover and Offenberg, “Zionism and Its Scarecrows,” 34-46; and Ella Shohat, “Rethinking Jews and Muslims: Quincentennial Reflections,” Middle East Report, September-October, 1992, 28-30.

[10] See Boaz Evron, “Holocaust: The Uses of Disaster,” Radical America 17, no. 4 (July-August 1983): 7-21.

[11] Quoted in Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators: A Reappraisal (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1983), 149.

[12] See William W. Ohrbach, “Israel vs. Soviet Jewry,” Response 38: 7-19; Soviet Jews: Whose Humanitarian Concern? (Washington, DC: Settlement Watch, 1992); The New York Times, 1 March 1987: 3; 30 March 1987: 8; 18 June 1987: 31 (column by Pamela B. Cohen and Micah H. Naftalin); 16 July 1987: 9; Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (Boston: South End Press, 1983), 110, 169n; Bulkin, “Hard Ground,” 155-156, 205n; and Bishara Bahbah, Israel and Latin America: The Military Connection (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 130-131.

[13] Dworkin, “Israel: Whose Country Is It Anyway?,” 74-77.

[14] On the Bund’s anti-Zionism, see for example International Jewish Labor Bund, The Jewish Labor Bund, 1897-1957 (New York, 1958). The Reform Jewish anti-Zionist tradition is continued by American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism, Inc. (AJAZ), 501 5th Avenue, Suite 2015, New York, NY 10017. See for example, EAFORD and AJAZ, Judaism or Zionism? Neturei Karta, affiliated with the Satmarer court of Hassidism, continues the Orthodox Jewish anti-Zionist tradition. See for example Moshe Shonfeld, The Holocaust Victims Accuse (Brooklyn, NY: Neturei Karta, 1977).

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